PZ Myers is absolutely correct when he describes his debate with Kirk Durston at the University of Alberta last night as "ugly".
But considering that Myers himself was the contributor of a great deal of that ugliness to that debate, one should think that he doth protest too bloody much.
Today in a post on his blog, Pharyngula, Myers essentially makes excuses for his poor performance in the debate last night -- and for the record, while he clearly out-shone Durston on the topic of science, his refusal to debate the actual topic of debate can't be looked at as anything other than a default.
In particular, Myers takes exception to Durston's previously-mentioned suggestion that states in which a core value was atheism was responsible for more state-perpetrated mass murders than states in which any religion was a core value.
(Durston described a core value as any value from which a state's other values are derived. Certainly, this is nothing if not an extremely cumbersome definition, but it does work.)
In order to justify that claim, Durston relies on the work of Rudolph Rummel, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii.
Myers essentially claims that if Rummel himself doesn't state that idea in his thesis, then his work can't be used to support it -- tantamount to suggesting that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity couldn't be used to build atomic bombs because Einstein disagreed with them.
And certainly, Myers is right when he notes that Durston's "atheist core value society" argument is nowhere to be found in Rummel's work -- or is at lest very difficult to find. What Rummel's work does provide, however, is the source material that Durston used to draw that conclusion.
In a table of democides -- which Rummel defines as combining genocide with mass murder -- Rummel ranks the states with the largest body counts throughout history, ranking them from deka-murderers to centi-kilomurderers. This table is pictured to the right.
An examination of the top five -- the dekamurderers -- alone confirms the basis for Durston's argument. Three of the five countries he lists as the top murderers in history -- The People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and North Korea -- are in the top five.
This may confirm the basis for Durston's argument, but it doesn't justify the argument itself. For one thing, to describe Nazi Germany as a state in which atheism was a core principle would be flagrantly false. The Nazi party promoted a state religion that was based on a collection of source material, ranging from far eastern spiritualism to bizarre occultism.
Moreover, it would be remiss to overlook the religious -- notably Christian -- overtones of European colonialism. Colonialism was treated by many leaders as a mission from god to deliver Christianity around the globe, and claim what they insisted God had created for them.
Think of the priest in The Four Feathers blessing British soldiers going off to fight the insurrection in Sudan telling them that "God has blessed the British race" with its empire.
But Myers, who accused Durston of peddling "bad history" during the debate, moves on to peddle more bad history himself in the course of his debate post-mortem blog entry.
First off, he claims that atheism was not a core principle of Marxism. This is flagrantly false. Karl Marx denounced religion as an "opiate of the masses" -- a false consciousness-inducing ideology that would have to be cast away in order for the allegedly inevitable revolution of the proletariat to come.
It was actually Vladimir Lenin who rejected the need for institutionalized atheism in his 1905 essay, "Socialism and Religion". While this would seem to invalidate the assertion that atheism was a core principle of the Soviet Union, one would have to remember what took place under Joseph Stalin's regime.
Stalin took advantage of pressure being applied on the Soviet government by organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless -- whose slogan was "the fight for godlessness is a fight for socialism" -- to justify changing the Soviet Constitution in 1936. He entrenched the anti-religious cause within the Constitution of the USSR.
This was done so Stalin could nationalize Church lands. Although Stalin made concessions to the Russian Orthodox Church during the second world war -- the Church was instrumental in re-casting the struggle against the Nazis as the Great Patriotic War -- the state continued to spread anti-religious propaganda through the Soviet Department of External Church relations and the KGB.
Even the more relatively moderate regime of Nikita Kruschev mandated the registration of religious groups with the Soviet government.
Entrenching atheism within the Soviet Constitution established it as a core value of that state. Myers is as wrong as he could possibly be to try to pretend otherwise.
Myers also lobbed an accusation at Durston that he was "poisoning the well" by even bringing this up in the first place. This is arguably a valid point. Then again, individuals like Christopher Hitchens have been arguing that religion is responsible for the most killings of any social force in human history -- the point that Durston was actually trying to refute.
If Durston was indeed poisoning the well, he shouldn't be excused for dumping more poison into an already-poisoned well. But by the same token, he didn't poison it first.
Myers also mischaracterizes one of Durston's key arguments. Myers insists that Durston claimed the Flavian testimony of Jesus is evidence of Jesus Christ's divinity. In fact, Durston claimed that the rapid spread of Christianity in the period immediately following Christ's death -- not more than a hundred years later, as Myers claimed -- is evidence that many people believed Jesus had risen from the grave. The Flavian testimony is believed by many to confirm this.
Myers did excel at his scientific arguments. His rebuttal to the argument that Intelligent Design is necessary to explain the complexity within nature was admirably elegant: that simplicity and efficiency, not complexity, are the hallmarks of good design.
But listening to Myers debate -- and his reliance on the "donkey's laugh" -- makes it plainly obvious where some of his admirers get their rhetorical "skills" from.
The debate was ugly. Mostly because neither individual came to the table with any thing terribly ground-breaking to say, and only one of them (Durston) bothered to actually debate the topic they had both agreed to.
Myers' hands were every bit as dirty as his opponent's in making the debate between himself and Kirk Durston an ugly affair.
It seems like Myers may be uncomfortable with his own conduct during the debate. Coming in additional commentary thrown in at the end of his blog post:
"It was Durston's first words that were insulting and illogical — a shot at calling atheists evil. I suppose if I'd opened by announcing that Christians were all stupid, we would have had equivalency…but I did not.Anyone who was actually at the debate can say for a fact that this is untrue.
And yes, we talked past each other the whole time. The debate topic was far too broad, I thought we were going to argue about the evidence for design, but Durston wiggled away and talked about anything but."
In fact, Myers opened his remarks by saying (roughly paraphrased) "do leprecauns exist? This is the same thing. This is crap."
Apparently, in Myers' mind, expressing his sheer contempt for the beliefs of others doesn't qualify as calling them stupid, as long as he doesn't say so in those explicit words.
Furthermore, if Myers was unsatisfied with the topic of the debate, he should have done exactly what Kenneth Hynek said he should have -- he should have declined the debate.
Other bloggers writing on this topic:
Lawrence A Moran - "Kirk Durston vs PZ Myers"
Kenneth Hynek - "PZ Myers Should Have Skipped the Debate"